By Ari Levin
After mayhem in the opening weeks, the Big Ten seems to have settled down just a bit. This past week saw a few upsets but no real stunners.
What that has led to is a complete logjam in the standings. With Rutgers representing the end of the top tier, everyone else can lay claim to the next tier. The only difference separating the standings is the scheduling so far, which explains how a talented team like Michigan is 3-4 in the Big Ten. There’s also an overabundance of good teams, with plenty that can make a case for one of the best. And then there’s Minnesota, where it seems like the world is somehow falling apart.
This week, we take a look at the biggest weakness for each team. We have seen repeatedly that anyone can beat anyone else in the conference, so here’s a key way to do just that against each team.
No. 11 Maryland Terrapins • 16-2 (5-2) • Last week: 1
Michigan State led the Terrapins for essentially the whole game and beat them in every facet en route to a commanding victory. Taylor Mikesell was held to just two three-point attempts, and they hit just 17 percent from deep as a team. On the bright side, Brianna Fraser scored 22 points off the bench.
Against Penn State, Maryland played a game that we have seen a few times this year, letting it stay close early before slamming the door in the fourth quarter. Mikesell got hot, scoring 23 points, while Shakira Austin had a double-double.
Despite the loss to Michigan State (and the Spartans’ subsequent loss), they stay the top team for now, without anyone below them doing quite enough to make the leap. You could argue that Rutgers deserves the top spot, but Maryland still has the most talent.
Biggest Weakness: Shot Selection
Maryland has some really good shooters, including the freshman Mikesell. But when it comes to three-point attempts, they’re firmly middle of the pack. They might be better off taking more shots outside.
No. 17 Iowa Hawkeyes • 14-4 (5-2) • Last week: 2
Iowa’s offense might be at its best when Gustafson puts up assists, as it is just impossible to defend both her and the secondary options. Of course, she’s often efficient enough that it doesn’t matter. But in games where she scores 20 and adds five assists, either to forward Hannah Stewart or to her three-point shooters, the Hawkeyes are unstoppable.
Gustafson hit the first three-pointer of her career at the first-quarter buzzer of the second game this week. She finished with 27 points in another unsurprisingly dominant performance.
Biggest Weakness: Defense
For all of Gustafson’s strengths, she’s not quite an elite defender, with just 10 steals this year. The Hawkeyes let you put up points and hope to outscore you, and that’s often a successful formula, but better defense would make them an even stronger team. The Illinois game provides a good example, as they scored 94 points but still allowed 75 when they could have made the game easier.
No. 14 Rutgers Scarlet Knights • 15-3 (7-0) • Last week: 3
Things seemed to be going as normal for Rutgers, leading by 14 in the last five minutes and holding Purdue to just 40 points. Then they had to pull out the win in overtime. Luckily, they were able to do that, making up for just 26 rebounds by forced 20 turnovers in the overtime victory.
Then, Rutgers dominated Michigan State despite allowing 44 percent on three-pointers. They scored 76 points, with 30 by Stasha Carey on 12-15 shooting and 12 assists from Ciani Cryor. The defense forced 17 turnovers, but it was the offense that gave Rutgers the edge in this one.
Biggest Weakness: A Primary Scorer
Rutgers’ defense will probably ensure that they don’t get blown out the rest of the season. But they’ve had to win a lot of close games, too. Luckily, they’ve been playing with a lead in those close games so far, but they still don’t have a go-to option on offense. If they’re down late in a game, who’s the one taking the shot?
23. Michigan State Spartans • 13-5 (3-4) • Last week: 4
Michigan State got off to a hot start, hitting five threes in the first quarter, and they didn’t look back while knocking off Maryland. Five Spartans scored double figures, including Sidney Cooks off the bench, and they held Maryland’s starters to just 33 points, as well as limiting Maryland to 2-12 from behind the arc.
They weren’t much worse shooting in the loss to Rutgers, but the Scarlet Knights got too hot. Cooks scored 15 off the bench to lead Michigan State, but nobody else did quite enough to keep up.
So far in the Big Ten, the Spartans have beaten Iowa, Minnesota and Maryland, while they’ve lost to Northwestern, Indiana and Ohio State before Rutgers. That’s remarkable inconsistency.
Biggest Weakness: Inconsistent Scoring
The Spartans offense is based on quick passes and getting open looks. The trouble is that those shots tend to be random. Some nights they’ll fall and the offense will be rolling, but on others they can struggle to put up points, leading to bad losses.
Purdue Boilermakers • 14-6 (5-2) • Last week: 6
Purdue scored 14 straight points in the last five minutes to force overtime with Rutgers but couldn’t get the win. Karissa McLaughlin and Dominique Oden both scored 18 points. But, as most teams tend to do against Rutgers, they turned the ball over 20 times.
The Boilermakers keep finding themselves in close games, but they’ve won four of the last five with great execution down the stretch, especially from the free-throw line.
Biggest Weakness: Depth
Purdue doesn’t go more than seven players deep, and they get very little production from their bench. Their starters can get the job done, but they need everyone healthy and playing well, otherwise their season could go south in a hurry.
Northwestern Wildcats • 11-7 (4-3) • Last week: 7
Veronica Burton had the breakout game that, well, was easy to see coming, scoring 16 points in the first half against Indiana. Not to be outdone, Lindsey Pulliam scored 18 points in the second half for 27 in the game, and the Wildcats defeated Indiana to move to 3-2 against ranked teams, but only 1-2 against currently ranked teams.
Still without Abi Scheid, the Wildcats struggled in the first quarter against Wisconsin before holding the Badgers scoreless for 10 minutes, finishing the first half on a 21-2 run and winning by 26. Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah had a great day with 21 points and 15 rebounds while Pulliam had 21 of her own. The Wildcats made just one three all game but that was more than they needed.
The Wildcats are now tied for fifth in the Big Ten, with everyone chasing Rutgers. There’s a long way to go, but the Wildcats look like a strong team and might continue to make a run.
Biggest Weakness: Outside Shooting
The Wildcats don’t rank that low, as they have the ninth-best three-point field goal percentage in the conference at 31 percent. But they don’t have a true catch-and-shoot option. Burton leads the team with a fantastic 40 percent but is more of an off-the-dribble scorer. If Scheid stays out, the Wildcats need to find somewhere else for that production.
Minnesota Golden Gophers • 13-5 (2-5) • Last week: 5
The Gophers ended their skid with a 28-point win over Wisconsin, as Kenisha Bell had 25 points and 10 assists. The four-game losing streak consisted of a mix of bad luck, tough opponents, and poor play, but it seemed to be behind them for the most part.
And then, another tough loss. Minnesota came so close on the road against Nebraska, but they just didn’t have it when it counted. Despite a 39-24 rebounding advantage, turnovers doomed the Gophers at the end of the game. Minnesota needs to figure something out fast with a promising season quickly spiraling out of control.
Biggest Weakness: Depth
Like Purdue, Minnesota usually has just seven or eight players and tries to win games with everything coming from their starters. If one of their key players gets hurt, they could be in even more trouble than they are now.
Michigan Wolverines • 12-7 (3-4) • Last week: 8
Michigan did all they could against Iowa, but the Hawkeyes were too much late. It didn’t help that the Wolverines went 1-15 on 3-pointers, including a 0-7 mark from Nicole Munger. Michigan scored 48 of their 61 points in the paint.
The Wolverines have had a tough schedule so far in conference, and they’re 0-4 on the road but 3-0 at home after rallying back to beat Ohio State. Naz Hillmon, who for some reason hasn’t started a game this year, led the team with 20 points, and Amy Dilk had 10 assists. Next week presents a chance for a breakout with games at Indiana and home against Michigan State. If they can win both, they’re back in the tournament conversation. If they lose both, the season is in trouble.
Biggest Weakness: Reliance on Munger
Munger has hit nearly half of Michigan’s 3-pointers this year. And after a hot start, she’s slowed down significantly as teams have keyed in on her. Someone else on the Wolverines needs to be able to take some of those shots.
Nebraska Cornhuskers • 9-9 (4-3) • Last week: 10
Then they became just the latest team to beat Minnesota. Hannah Whitish had 12 points and was huge down the stretch as Nebraska finished on a 12-0 run. Nicea Eliely continues to find ways to make her presence felt, scoring just two points but adding six steals.
Biggest Weakness: Starter Scoring
Nebraska’s top two scorers, and three of their top six, haven’t made a start all year. That’s a really odd dynamic for a team, and it puts them in holes early in games.
Indiana Hoosiers • 15-4 (4-3) • Last week: 9
The Hoosiers came crashing back to Earth after their great start to the season with a pair of losses and now dropping three of their last four.
Again, the Hoosiers were thoroughly outmatched against a conference opponent and suffered their first home loss to Northwestern. Indiana trailed by double digits for most of the game, as Ali Patberg scored 22 points but Indiana was out-rebounded 42-29.
They played significantly better against Purdue but just couldn’t pull away in the end. No team led by more than seven all game, and the game was within three the entire fourth quarter. Bendu Yeaney led the team with 15 points, but the Boilermakers only scored 11 points off 15 Purdue turnovers.
Biggest Weakness: Offensive Plays
Indiana assists on just 48 percent of its field goals, the lowest mark in the Big Ten. That hasn’t yet led to struggles shooting the ball but will be concerning once they start to see the top defenses.
Ohio State Buckeyes • 7-9 (3-4) • Last week: 11
The Buckeyes picked up a nice road win in overtime at Penn State. Freshman Janai Crooms had a career-high 27 points, and her 12 in the second half alone tied a career-high. She’s scored double figures in five straight games after not reaching double digits any game before.
The Buckeyes nearly made it four straight against Michigan, leading by 12 in the fourth quarter, but the Wolverines ended the game on a 21-5 run. Ohio State had just six assists all game. They’re certainly starting to find their stride as a team, with Crooms now contributing and Carmen Grande finding more consistency. They could start to reach the next tier of the conference.
Biggest Weakness: Turnovers
Ohio State is by far the worst team in the Big Ten in turnover margin. Grande is part of that, as she can be reckless, but the whole team struggles to control the ball.
Penn State Nittany Lions • 9-9 (2-5) • Last week: 13
Penn State lost a game in which they led by 18 in the fourth quarter. They scored just four points in the overtime period against Ohio State after allowing a 22-4 run to finish regulation.
The Nittany Lions then went down by 13 in the first quarter to Maryland but didn’t give up, taking back the lead for much of the third quarter. Teniya Page scored 20 after not starting the game. Penn State played a clean game with just 10 turnovers, but for the second time this year Maryland was just too much at the end.
Biggest Weakness: Three-Point Shooting
You could say reliance on Teniya Page, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But, partly as an offshoot of that, they’re the second-worst team in the Big Ten on deep shots. The Nittany Lions are simply not a threat from behind the arc, and that makes defending them much easier.
Illinois Fighting Illini • 9-9 (1-6) • Last week: 14
They managed to score consistently against Iowa in a 75-point effort that included 21 from Beasley and 20 from Alex Wittinger. But they simply couldn’t make a stop on defense.
Biggest Weakness: Capitalization of Talent
Theoretically, the Illini should have good players. They have a fine number of solid recruits currently on the roster. But for whatever reason, the development hasn’t quite come. As such, they don’t post much of a threat to most Big Ten teams.
Wisconsin Badgers • 10-9 (1-6) • Last week: 12
The Badgers lost by 28 points to Minnesota, who had lost four straight. Kenisha Bell had more assists than all of Wisconsin (8) and scored half as many points as Wisconsin did as a team.
They scored just two points in the second quarter of a 26-point loss at Northwestern. A 3-24 mark on three-point attempts didn’t help, but they shot just 24 percent overall from the field. Things are trending down for the Badgers quickly.
Biggest Weakness: Free-Throw Shooting
This may not be the biggest factor, but the Badgers shoot just 53 percent on their free throws. Against Minnesota they were 8-21. That’s embarrassing. And easy for teams to take advantage.